***/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras A-
screenplay by Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Gustaf Tenggren, based on the book by Felix Salten
directed by David Hand
by Bryant Frazer Bambi is just 70 minutes long, but it's one of the more versatile features in the Disney canon. It's a cute circle-of-life story, sure, populated by talking rabbits, nominally sweet-smelling skunks, and wise old owls (not to mention the adorable chipmunks that the owl, for some reason, hasn't preyed upon). But look what else is going on in this slice-of-wildlife film: an attempt at an animated nature documentary; a tract in opposition to sport hunting; and the impetus for generations of children to weep in terror at the prospect of losing their mothers.
Some say that Walt Disney was a sadist who enjoyed scaring the daylights out of little kids. (Exhibitors, one story goes, got into the habit of reupholstering their theatre seats on a seven-year schedule that coincided with the re-releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which quite literally scared the piss out of youngsters.) I say that while he may have been a sadist, kids could use a good scare every now and then. If Uncle Walt can do them the favour of taking them on a quick walk up and down Cold Facts Avenue before they have to discover the world's awful truths for themselves, bully for him.
But Bambi never really did the trick for me, in part because, at its abbreviated length, it never works up the head of narrative steam that would make me care what happens to any of these enchanted woodland creatures. The film opens on what's always seemed like a weird note: the animals declaring that "a prince is born" and gathering to witness the apparently miraculous event always has me wondering if I'm witnessing some weird Christian allegory that I lack the theological chops to decode. It turns out that the new "prince" is Bambi, an expectedly awkward, predictably adorable fawn born to a doting, attentive mother and a conspicuously absent (but badass) father.
Bambi's forest buddies include bunny Thumper and skunk Flower, whose conceptions provide much of the requisite sickly cuteness to satisfy the Disney formula. Bambi himself is charming, though the appeal isn't that he mugs shamelessly or speaks with a slow drawl (courtesy of Son of Frankenstein's Donnie Dunagan, later a Marine drill sergeant!). Instead, it's that he's drawn so expertly by a team of Disney artists energized by the challenge of animating an animal with attention to how a real one moves in nature. Their efforts are undermined somewhat by the film's relentless anthropomorphization--there's a bit of cognitive dissonance when Bambi's beautifully-realized mother suddenly parts her lips and starts talking like Donna Reed--but there's an awful lot to admire in the way they balance observational drawing with the more exaggerated Disney style of character design.
The process by which human qualities are imputed to animals has become known as "Bambi-ism" for good reason, and because the film insists on depicting Bambi as a reflection of a human child, parts of it take on suspect qualities. At face value, the movie's depiction of family is fairly noxious, with the mother being left behind to care for her newborn while the father goes off and does manly things, like strutting through the woods with his chest puffed out as all the rest of creation looks on with admiration and wonder. I understand the problem--a stag in the real world wouldn't be caught caring for his young--but Bambi's gender politics become a little weird just the same. (It probably wouldn't have been an improvement to show Bambi's father caring for an entire harem of hinds, either.)
The picture takes on a simple, stylized structure, using different seasons as shorthand for the passage of time and showing Bambi's coming of age as he matures into a magnificent old stag who can take the place of his father at the top of the forest food chain. What most people remember Bambi for is the death, barely offscreen, of Bambi's mother as "Man" makes his way into the forest, shotguns drawn. (Later, a hunter also accidentally sets off a terrifying fire that burns much of the forest down to nubs.) Is it necessary to suggest that kind of trauma in a children's film? Psychologists may disagree, but I feel like it's OK to introduce awful concepts to kids gradually, and in a safe context, when they'll have a chance to ask Mom and Dad all the questions that occur to them.
And though Bambi neither touched nor traumatized me as a kid, I can better appreciate some of its charms as an adult. It's especially sweet to note the significance of the film's third act, in which young Thumper and Flower, voices changed, have grown to adulthood and now carry enthusiastic broods of their own in tow. Ultimately a slight film and often a pandering one, Bambi nevertheless feels like a delicate valentine from the Disney studio to the notions of maturity and parenthood, old age, and death.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney's "Diamond Edition" Blu-ray release of Bambi isn't as heavily freighted with extras as some of their other titles, though what's here is pretty dazzling. The 1.33:1 transfer itself is perhaps not as jaw-dropping as last year's Fantasia, but it's still an awesome accomplishment--leaving aside the fact that the feature was overhauled by some powerful computer algorithms in a way that makes this not really a version of Bambi as much as a complete re-envisioning of it. The colours are a little too intense, the density of the image a little too flat and pure. I miss the visibility of brush-strokes and other imperfections, as reassuring in their way as the visible fingerprints on King Kong's fur. (Note that the paintings that fill the margins with DisneyView activated are by Lisa Keene, a conceptual artist who worked on Disney's Tangled.) Sound has been expanded to 7.1 channels and encoded in DTS-HD High-Resolution Audio (shockingly, a lossy format, albeit one that runs at 2046 kbps), and the results are pretty darned good, if subtle. While there's not a whole lot of conspicuously directional sound, the score is mixed in a way that makes the most of your listening area. A Dolby Digital 2.0 version of the "restored original theatrical soundtrack" is also available, a robust mono mix that clocks in at 320 kbps.
Bonus Features are arranged in a way that segregates the one obvious kiddie extra, "Disney's Big Book of Knowledge: Bambi Edition," under the generic heading of "Family Play: Games & Activities." It's basically an interactive children's book that uses an avuncular surrogate voice for Friend Owl to dispense information about life in the forest--how different animals adapt to winter conditions, what happens after dark, etc.--mixed with simple mini-games that invite the pipsqueaks to collect and place virtual "stickers" on Disney forest backgrounds or catch snowflakes on Bambi's tongue by moving him back and forth across the screen with the arrow keys. It's fine as far as it goes, though I've always found controlling these things with four arrows and an "enter" button to be a touch squirrelly. Maybe the kids can do it.
The Blu-ray's "Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition" features truly ambitious settings for supplemental material, with mixed degrees of success. "Bambi: Inside Walt's Story Meetings" is a seriously glorified audio commentary that relies on the familiar gimmick of having voice actors read aloud from transcripts of the original conferences in which Walt and his key staffers developed ideas for these films. This one is fully tricked-out, however: Bambi keeps playing as you listen, but sometimes it recedes into a secondary frame on a screen dominated by other elements--huge pieces of background art, for instance, or character designs, or segments from a Disney short that influenced the picture. Occasionally a window pops up at the bottom of the screen suggesting a line of further inquiry ("Hear More About the Chipmunk and the Squirrel"); if you click enter, a countdown appears and then the video branches off to explore that territory before returning to the film at the point where you departed. It's impressively slick. (Beware of compatibility issues--the disc plays fine on my PlayStation 3, but our Fearless Leader here at FILM FREAK CENTRAL couldn't get Bambi to load up on his standalone Samsung. My copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD is mostly OK with it, although the learn-more-about-it stuff doesn't seem to work at all.)
The second innovative bit of business here is called Disney Second Screen. This is an effort at doing much more gracefully what BD-Live technology attempts to do. Rather than relying on your Blu-ray player to download extra information, Second Screen has you sit on your couch with an Internet-connected computer, input the DVD Magic Code from your Bambi package, and synchronize a web application with playback of the film on your TV screen. If the "synchronize" part sounds funky, it is. Your laptop will ostensibly listen as you play back the movie, using the sound patterns it hears to decide what part you're watching. It took an awful long time for that to work in my living room, and I was using a nice, new MacBook Pro.
Once synchronization is achieved, the interactive features are quite nice. You can explore various character designs, pieces of artwork, and more in relatively high resolution. Animated "flipbooks" allow you to scrub backward and forward through scraps of character animation, overlaying completed cel animation on top of the original pencil drawings. You choose what to look at in greater detail by selecting thumbnails or icons that appear on your computer screen as the movie plays. It's somewhat disconcerting, though, because the film continues while you're off flipping through a slideshow. When you re-sync with the live playback, you can't help but wonder what you missed.
I don't mind having a Netbook or an iPhone with me while I watch TV, as I can keep up with the latest snark on my Twitter feed, monitor my e-mail, or check the weather. Second Screen felt more challenging, since it demands more concentration--it's a tad confusing to realize that the Blu-ray playback on the TV continues to dictate the terms of your interactive experience, as opposed to what you're doing on the computer. It would be nice if the Second Screen website could somehow control your BD player in real time via the Internet, but I suspect that's a sci-fi scenario where this generation of technology is concerned. Although I don't own an iPad, I can imagine that such a device would make the experience seem simpler and easier to control, and thus more organic to the linear movie-watching experience. I'm not convinced it's The Way of the Future, yet Disney Second Screen is a tantalizing experiment. (I would pay an awful lot of money for a Prospero's Books version.)
The rest of the material created for this Blu-ray is relatively pedestrian, but of likely interest to Disney completists. Two new, previously unreleased deleted scenes are presented as lightly animated HD storyboards. Introduced by Disney experts Charles Solomon and Paula Sigman, respectively, they are "Two Leaves" (3 mins.) and "Bambi Stuck on a Reed" (2 mins.). The former, which depicts the last two autumn leaves still attached to a tree consoling each other over their imminent fate, is worth a chuckle. A deleted song, "Twitterpated," is likewise here. It plays out in front of a single HD title card in Dolby Digital 2.0 for almost two minutes. Finally, a set of "Interactive Galleries" allows onscreen browsing of character designs, background paintings, production stills, storyboards, and other artifacts of the "visual development" process. It shares a lot of redundancy with both Second Screen and "Inside Walt's Story Meetings," basically offering an alternative interface for the same material.
Speaking of redundancy, this Blu-ray additionally ports over a mountain of (standard-definition) bonus material from the Platinum Edition DVD release, such as the lengthy and highly informative documentary "The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born" and the 1937 Silly Symphony The Old Mill, the first use of an elaborate multi-plane animation camera Walt Disney himself explains in a "Tricks of the Trade" segment that's on board as well. (If you're really interested in seeing The Old Mill, the Diamond Edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs offers a proper restoration in 1080p.) Under the heading of "Sneak Peeks," Disney has optimistically included links to HD trailers/commercials for titles like Winnie the Pooh, Tangled, The Lion King Diamond Edition, and, yuck, Bambi II Special Edition. For reasons known only to Buena Vista Home Entertainment, one last special feature, the spare nature-doc featurette "DisneyPedia: Bambi's Forest Friends" (4 mins.), is only on the DVD bundled in this two-disc "combo pack." Originally published: March 9, 2011.